By the Book: Writing that was out of the ballpark

I was reading about a recent Yankee game and came across this: “ … a triple that was misplayed by centerfielder Nyjer Morgan. Morgan sprinted toward the warning track in pursuit of the well-struck ball, but crashed violently into the padding and fell to the dirt.” My first thought was “old-time sports writing has returned.” It’s rare today to find dramatic descriptions of plays or players, which is fine, I guess, but when I saw “well-struck” and “fell to the dirt” I was back in the ’40s and ’50s when writers like Joe Williams, Dick Young and Joe Trimble covered the games.

I have a scrapbook of World Series newspaper articles from those Yankee/Dodger/Giant years, when the writing, surely florid, stoked your imagination. Here’s the report of a huge play in the sixth game of the ’47 Series:

“Little Al, hydrant high and running like a bunny with his tail afire, raced back, back, back. He finally turned and stuck out his gloved right hand as the ball was about to clear the bullpen barrier … ” Phew! All you Brooklyn/Bronx fans know who Al was, and just relived that moment. Few of us actually saw it — TV sets were few and far between — but we experienced it the next morning, hot off the presses.

Today’s writers understand that replay after replay — in full color, in slo-mo, on every channel — has lessened the need for colorful descriptions, and cold facts work fine. Strike up the bland! But the morning after the second game of the ’51 Series brought us this: “The miracle Giants fell right out of those fleecy clouds of fantasy yesterday. Durocher’s darlings of destiny were dragged back to reality … ” New York City’s English teachers must have jumped with joy: the entire grammar school had certainly read that and “today’s lesson will be about alliteration.”

1952. Seventh game. With the bases loaded, the game on the line and the infielders in disarray, “Martin darted toward the mound as the ball descended rapidly, running out from under his hat and, with one frantic lunge, grabbed the pill at knee level.” The next morning it was read about, hashed, rehashed, revered and reviled. “Of all people, that Martin guy,” just as in ’51 it had been “Of all people, that Stanky guy.” Rizzuto never got over Stanky kicking the ball away.

Just one more. “Ever so briefly and ever so lightly, Brooklyn’s sad sky wept openly in the last half of the ninth inning. Perhaps the Brooklyn sky, black and frowning throughout the day, could restrain its tears no longer.” This after only the third game of the ’49 Series!

I don’t want to live in the past, but this upholstered writing (“shattering wallop,” “overpowering hurling,” “hustling scoop,” “squirming crowd”) embraced all the things we were being taught in school: see it, feel it and express it. It was also very enjoyable, something to anticipate the morning after a game.

A final note. The sportswriters used to say “flied out” but are now saying “flew out.” It’s probably better English, but the only player who maybe “flew out” to center field is Angel Pagan.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]